Helen Chappell - September 2007
Ten Things I Like About Living on the Eastern Shore
One: Mom and Pop Stores - The Big Boxing of the Shore has done away with many of the local merchants. They knew you and you knew them. If you were a dollar short, they’d tell you to bring it in next time. Try that at Wal-Mart, I dare you.
I really like Easton Hardware. The rich smell of an old-fashioned honest-to-God hardware store greets you when you walk in the door. The essence of metal and rope and 3 in 1 Oil takes me back like nothing else.
Easton Hardware is the place where you can buy a single nail, not a pack. Where you can get waited on by someone who knows what you’re looking for and where you can find it. Where you can get honest-to-God advice about fixing it or building it. Where they can fix tools. Easton Hardware is a real treasure and I love it.
In a world where the small Mom and Pop businesses like bookstores are being crushed by big corporations, it’s a good thing to shop local.
Two: The Food - I love it. I admit this. The Eastern Shore offers some of the best cuisine on the eastern seaboard, a fusion of seafood combined with the best of Southern cooking. Sure, you can get a crab cake anywhere, but nothing like what you can get around here. I’ve never seen soft crabs or oyster fritters on the menu in California.
Let’s not forget the sides. Corn pudding, corn puffs, beets pickled with cinnamon, beaten biscuits, funeral ham, fried chicken, the ever popular stringbean casserole – it’s all good. And there’s nothing quite like a fresh tomato picked off your own vine and eaten over the sink.
Good food can be found anywhere in the world, and I’m always interested in global cuisine. One of my favorite places to eat is Out of the Fire in Easton, where Amy Haines offers a richly varied and creative menu.
But sometimes you just want what is dear and familiar to you. The Shore has some good comfort food.
Three: Crazy People - Crazy people, like the poor, are always with us. It’s just that in the small-town atmosphere around here, you can really get to deal with their craziness up close and personal, 24/7. In a big city or a faceless suburb, no one notices the neighbor’s eccentricities, at least until the corpses are discovered in the crawlspace.
As the late Captain Len Salomon of Oxford once testified in a maritime salvage trial, “We’ve got characters we haven’t even used yet.” Plus we’re getting new ones all the time.
The interesting thing about living in a small-town hothouse atmosphere is that people often know your business before you do. And what they don’t know, they make up.
All small communities have their characters, but here they take on mythological status; they are supported and looked after by their neighbors and their deeds are looked upon with fond amusement. If they’re poor, they’re crazy. If they’re rich, they’re eccentric. Either way, as long as they don’t do something really outrageous, we do love our characters.
I hate to see that one pass, but I suppose it’s inevitable as we become suburbia.
Four: The Wildlife - Beside my house there is a thicket sheltering a tiny freshwater creek. It’s the habitat of hundreds of birds that gives me no end of pleasure. I can pause in my work and look out the window at my feeder, placed close to the thicket, and watch sparrows, finches, cardinals and doves feed.
Sometimes the redheaded woodpeckers come to pick at the sunflower seeds when the bug pickings are thin in late winter. In the early summer mornings I can go to the computer and drink my coffee, listening to the songs of hundreds of birds whose nests are hidden in that leafy jungle, and it’s one of the best moments of my day. Bird song is beautiful.
The wolf and the black bear haven’t roamed this area in 200 years. The whitetail deer was introduced, and does more than quite well, as does the raccoon, two animals with the adaptive smarts to survive in sprawl, even though a lot of us wish the deer wouldn’t. The second or third time Bambi runs across three lanes of traffic in the middle of the night to smash into your car kind of takes the edge off the cuteness quotient. The birds, some of them, anyway, are hanging on.
In the winter, after Christmas when it’s at its coldest and roughest out on the open water, sea ducks come into the shelter around the ferry slip at the end of my road, rafting up against the ice and waves.
Canvasbacks, old squaws, pintails, buffleheads, mergansers, even geese and mallards ride the waves, disappearing to dive for whatever they can find on the bottom. When the weather clears up, the ducks all head for open water. But what a joy it is to watch them while they’re here. Some years there are more, some years less, but I treasure them.
Five: I Never Have to Change My Own Tires - I’m reasonably handy. I can fix a lot of things, and jury rig a lot more. I can even change a tire. But I never have to. If you are a woman, and you have a flat, just roll out the jack and the doughnut and stand there and wait.
Within a reasonable amount of time, there will be two or three guys there, all of them ready, willing and able to change your tire. Do not try to argue with them. Just let them do it. This is the Eastern Shore and Eastern Shore gentlemen live for this moment.
Six: My Grass - My lawn has no fertilizers, weed killers or other chemicals that run off into the watershed. I like the wild fauna that spring up in my yard. It’s historically accurate.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing from England, yearned for the chickweed, plantains and dock that grew in American lawns, contrasting it favorably against the over-manicured English greens.
I see nothing wrong with that. An overly green, overly treated lawn is suspiciously parvenu at best, and at worst it’s a threat to the environment. Vive le chickweed!
Seven: The Eastbound Span of the Bay Bridge - Sanctuary! There is no feeling of safety and succor quite as comforting as getting on the Eastbound span and seeing Kent Island in the distance. Especially after a long trip far away. It’s an exhalation of stress. It’s the same feeling prisoners of war must have when, after years of captivity and torture, they finally touch upon their native soil. Sanctuary! I’m coming home!
Eight: Eastern Shore Alzheimer’s - Shore people can forget everything but a grudge: And man, can people hold a grudge around here.
A really good grudge can start from little or nothing, or it can be grown from some serious offense. A world class grudge is carefully nurtured and watered and fed, and, like exhibition livestock, shown off at every available opportunity.
Around here a grudge can be passed down from generation to generation as a family heirloom, long after the initial reasons for conflict, as well as the combatants, have gently decomposed back into the soil.
There is some world class grudge holding in these parts. I’ve got two mortal enemies myself.
Nine: Star Struckers - The way people go absolutely nuts at the faintest rumor some famous person might come and live here. First it was Paul Newman, lately it’s Michael Jackson.
No one has taught folks around here that it’s impolite to notice celebrities in public, and they haven’t seemed to have learned to be sophisticated about them when they do buy real estate. There are certainly enough transplants from the big cities around here who should be more sophisticated about famous people in their midst: Robert Mitchum, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Joe Trippi, Tony Snow. Is it really worth stopping the presses if these people go out to eat?
Ten: Where Else Would I Go? Every once in a while, I think about moving away from here. There’s the lure of my family in Florida, with growing grandbabies to spoil.
And there’s the thought, at the end of a bad day, of running away. Just grab the cat, get in the car, fill the tank and drive until I run out of gas. Then establish a new life wherever I end up. Get a job, get a place to live and maybe even change my name. Then I realize that while such ideas work in Drew Barrymore movies and Anne Tyler novels, real life doesn’t have a script. And roots are hard to pull up, let alone put down.
Ultimately, it’s those roots, a lifetime of them, that keep me hanging around here, waiting to see what happens next. Even though the countryside vanishes a little more each day, there are still things that keep me hanging around.